2003 Washington Mutual Thunderboat Regatta

Mitch Conquers the San Diego Salt

A Win for U-3 LLumar

by Mac Clouse, with Bill Moore and Niles Mayfield

If you were Gary Garbrecht, what would you do when all six boats for your final heat were determined before any racing started?

How would you still present a good show for the fans?

This dilemma Gary faced at the Thunderfest Regatta. With only six boats able to race, he ran a series of four-boat heats, varying the participants in each of the six preliminary heats. The only meaningful racing was left for the final heat. When the salty spray finally settled, Mitch Evans had his third win of the season with U-3, now sporting the stickers of his "transferred" sponsor, LLumar Window Film.

Testing and Time Trials

Only nine entries were in the pits.

After many hours of work by Bill Wurster's crew and volunteers (from as faraway as Portland and the Tri-Cities), U-8 LLumar was repaired from its Detroit flip. Bill asked Nate Brown to substitute for the injured Mark Evans. Nate said, "Mark told me to just mash the gas, as he does! We've adjusted the cockpit so it's comfortable forme. When I go out I'll see how the wing affects the boat and learn how it steers. I'll bend around the turn to see how it sets up. My agenda is to put the boat in the show, maintain a presence for LLumar and Bill, and try to stay in second place in the season points. I'll be conservative."

Mike Weber also had a different ride. U-10 EMCOR was too badly damaged at Detroit to be repaired in time for this race. Now wearing the number was the boat that brother Mark drove as U-15 at Detroit. Mike last drove that boat (ex-Wildfire, etc.) in 2001. "It is a narrower hull than the other boat. It won't be as fast in rough water. But we will have more fuel than I had in 2001, so it could be fast enough to win.

We'll have about 300 people from EMCOR and Hansen Manufacturing here, so we want to put on a good show."

U-9 would race again in San Diego as Sun Harbor Mortgage, but this time with a sad story. The mortgage company's president, a strong supporter of the sponsorship, was murdered on Sept. 15.

Friday's weather was typical.

Early morning clouds burned off, and the temperature was in the mid-70s. In the first time-trial session, the first boat out was U-100 "VONS Presents American Pride." J.W. Myers' third lap was a surprising 159.458 mph, a speed that would hold up as the fastest of the weekend. Unfortunately, in an afternoon session,

VONS blew the engine used in the fast lap.

Steve David in Oh Boy! Oberto did a lap of 147.933. Shortly after crossing the finish line, he coasted to a stop. Steve got out, walked to the rear of the boat, and looked down. The prop was still there, but one of the blades was gone. The unbalanced prop damaged the bottom. The strut pulled away from the bottom, which had damage alongside. The shaft log was big enough for two shafts. There also was damage inside the boat.

"It's twice as bad as it looks," said owners' representative Bob Hughes. "If we were in Seattle again, we could fix it in time. We don't have the facility we need." The field now was eight boats.

In the last session of the day, U-8 LLumar made its first appearance. Brown's "conservative" first lap was 155.110. Halfway through the first turn of his second lap, disaster struck again. "I heard something rattle and shut it down, but it was too late," said Nate. LLumar too, broke a prop, with serious damage. It was not as bad as EMCOR at Detroit but worse than Ellstrom. Towed to the pits, LLumar was under water to the top of the cockpit. The short shaft and prop were gone. The left side of the strut was broken, and there was damage to the left rear and shoe where the prop had cut through like an uncontrolled chainsaw. There was a 6' by 2' hole in the bottom, beginning where the shaft exits the hull and moving forward under the engine. The long shaft was still there, bent like a car's tail pipe. Both the gearbox and engine were damaged. "These last two races [San Diego and Detroit] have been the toughest I've ever had," said teary-eyed owner Bill Wurster. The field was now seven boats.

The other Friday speeds were 159.232 for U-3 (Mitch Evans), 156.268 for T6 Miss Budweiser (Dave Villwock), 154.628 for Sun Harbor Mortgage (Mike Hanson), 151.324 for EMCOR (Mike Weber), 145.351 for Mister Home Loan (Ken Muscatel), and 145.327 for Trendwest (Terry Troxell).

U-3 was not quite as fast as last year's 160-mph lap here. Evans still was pleased. "We have a great combination that we used to win the Gold Cup and we are saving for the final here. We're looking for a setup for the heats. With the combination we used today, a 159 is good." Last year, U-3 lost power when salt water invaded its electrical system. Mitch described the solution: "We're using high-temp turkey bags with a double duct-tape wrap." The piston engine's distributor caps and ignition coils were covered with 600° turkey-roasting bags. Two layers of red duct tape wrapped the bags.

Saturday's weather was like Friday's, except for a moderate wind blowing across the course. When the pits opened to the public, there were several LLumar crew members on the deck of the unsponsored U-3. They put large LLumar decals on the sponsons and uprights. Bill Wurster had made a Friday-night deal with Ed Cooper, and U-3 was now LLumar. (There also were small Oberto stickers on the boat.)

The last time trial session was in the late morning. Heats 1A and 1B were scheduled for late afternoon. Hanson increased his speed to 158.895, and Weber increased his to 152.529. However the most significant event was earlier. Muscatel was the first one out at 11:30. In its first lap. Mister Home Loan did a 360-degree flip on the back-stretch, taking off near the channel that is notorious for a crosswind. Muscatel's boat landed hard on the left shoe, then pitched forward to its right side.

It settled flat on the water and was still running when Ken shut it off. He was unhurt.

Muscatel had no warning of the flip. "The boat didn't talk to me. I was going 176 mph. It was just up she went! I got my feet away from the pedals and grabbed my air mask. When I landed upright, it was still going. I had to shut it off, because I didn't know how bad the damage might be." In addition to damage to its left shoe, the boat was cracked diagonally all the way across from about 10 feet in front of the stem on the left to 6 feet in front of the stem on the right. The bottom was not broken, but the stringers were. The field was now down to six.

At the 12:45 pm drivers' meeting, Hydro-Prop told the drivers that three-boat heats were unacceptable to the San Diego race committee. They would run all six boats in each heat, with one heat at 4:40 on Saturday and four heats plus a final on Sunday. Preliminary heats would be three laps; the final would be five.

This plan met a lot of opposition! The drivers were concerned about the attrition that would result from too many six-boat heats and the salt water. One driver said, "You may get good races in some preliminaries but end up with only two boats available for the final." Another asked if the owners knew of this planned format, Garbrecht said, "Not yet. We will talk with them and review this plan."

At 2:15, the plan had changed. There would be six preliminary heats, three laps, with four boats each. Each boat would compete in four heats.

Two boats from 1A would compete again in 1B, this time against the two boats that "sat out" 1A. Because two boats would race in two consecutive heats, the schedule was relaxed to allow about one hour between the times that the boats raced. 2A would then have the four boats that hadn 't yet been in the same heat. This process was continued again for heats 2B, 3A, and 3B. Lanes would be assigned. Heats 1A and 1B would be on Saturday,

1A at 2:30 (15 minutes after notification of the new plan) and 1B at 4:45.

Heat 1

VONS started 1A from lane 1, LLumar 2, Sun Harbor 3, and Bud 4. They were the four fastest qualifiers, with the fastest in the inside lanes. All but VONS were together at the start; VONS had little power and did three slow laps to finish fourth.

Evans was first to the turn and led Hanson by one-half roostertail going into turn 2. Villwock trailed Hanson by one roostertail going into turn 2, but Hanson accelerated away through the turn. Hanson could never challenge Evans, as Mitch won by two roostertails. Villwock slowed considerably after lap 1 and finished one-half lap behind Hanson.

LLumar van well, Evans said. "The bags were perfect. We ran the same motor we qualified with. We'll clean it up, put new bags on, and run it again.

We're going through the motions for points now until the final."

There was nothing mechanically wrong with Villwock's boat. "I was placed on everyone's hip, and what was expected to happen did." Myers lost his first battle with the salt. "It was my fault. I took on too much salt in the warm-up; I had no power."

In 1B, VONS again had lane 1, with Bud in 2, EMCOR in 3, and Trendwest in 4. All four boats were even at the start. Villwock was first to and out of the turn and narrowly led Weber and Myers up the backstretch. At the end of the lap, Villwock led Myers by one-half roostertail, with Weber one roostertail behind Myers. Troxell was content to cruise behind, 'way outside.

In the backstretch of lap 2, VONS showed great speed to pull even with Budweiser on the inside.

As they went through turn 2, Villwock kept Myers close to the buoy line. J.W. got too close and hit the buoy before the exit buoy. It flew high in the air to the outside of the course. VONS was penalized one lap.

Villwock finished three roostertails ahead of Myers, whose extra lap gave him fourth. Weber was third with Troxell cruising to third.

Villwock explained his better performance in 1B. "Mitch and Hanson are faster than me. They just ran away from me in 1A. In this heat, even though J.W. is faster than me, I was able to trap him inside, and he hit the buoy." Myers said, "Villwock held me tight. I cranked the wheel hard to stay in lane 1 and hit the buoy. We asked the officials if Villwock gave me the required 15-foot space. They said he did."

Troxell was satisfied with third. "No sense in beating everything up until you need to. We also used the heat to test some things. We ' re now going straight for the first time, and we've picked up some speed." At the end of the first day of racing, it appeared that Evans and Hanson had the two fastest boats.

But Hanson was concerned about the composition of his heats. "We can't keep running hard every time. We can't always have the fast boats versus the fast boats. The fans will pay the price when the earlier races impact our equipment and dilute the quality of the final. When the final does come, we can run with Mitch. It will depend on who is inside."

Villwock's win in 1B clinched the national championship for Budweiser, number 23 for the team and number 1 for Joe Little.

Heat 2

Sunday was sunny, mid-70s, with only a light breeze blowing across the course.

With not much to be determined until the final, only Trendwest and Sun Harbor tested in the morning.

For 2A, Trendwest was in lane 1, EMCOR in 2, Sun Harbor in 3, and LLumar in 4. All four boats were together at the start, with Troxel 1 and Hanson first to the turn. Coming out of the turn, Troxell, Hanson, and Evans were side by side.

Hanson took a slight lead up the backstretch and led Troxell by one boat length at the end of lap 1. Evans was close behind Troxell, and Weber trailed.

Evans passed Troxell in lap 3, but no one challenged Hanson, who finished three roostertails ahead.

In 2B, VONS had lane 1, Sun Harbor 2, EMCOR 3, and Bud 4. Before their start, Villwock was told to return to the pits; he was disqualified for a violation while milling.

Myers was first to and out of the turn, but Hanson pulled even on the backstretch. Hanson pinched Myers in turn 2 and pulled away to lead by two boat lengths at the end of lap 1. In lap 2, Myers went through Sun Harbor's roostertail near the entrance to turn 2, and the engine died. Hanson went on to win easily by half a straightaway over Weber.

The drivers' representative, Steve David, said, "While forming up for the race, Villwock was cutting across the course to the backstretch. J.W. followed him across on Villwock's inside. When Villwock got to the backstretch, Weber was there in lane 1; Villwock had to turn hard to the left to avoid him. In doing this, Villwock washed down J.W. VONS slowed temporarily, then got going again. Villwock didn't deliberately wash him down, but the rule says if you cut someone off and change the course of events, it is a disqualification. In lap 2 of the race, J.W. started his turn in turn 2 too early. He had to turn right to get to the correct buoy, and this caused him to go through Hanson's roostertail. Hanson gave him enough room."

Heat 3

Starting 3A, EMCOR was in lane 1, Trendwest in 2, Bud in 3, and LLumar in 4. Villwock and Evans were first to cross the line. Villwock was first in and out of turn 1 with Weber close on the inside and Evans close on the outside. At lap's end, Villwock led Weber by one boat length, with Evans a half-boat length behind Weber. Troxell again was content to cruise in the back.

In lap 2, Evans passed Weber to move to second. When he heard the radio announce that both Villwock and Evans had jumped, Weber backed off for a win. Troxell got second. Villwock and Evans did their extra lap to get third and fourth.

Weber tried to run with the two red boats. "I gave it all I had for one lap. That's all we have. If you don't have the smoke to run with them, there's going to be a lot of salt if you are inside of them. I'd rather be in lane 6."

Sun Harbor had lane 1 for 3B, LLumar 2, VONS 3, and Trendwest 4. From the inside, Hanson took a quick lead and was never challenged for the win. Evans and Myers ran side by side for a lap, until J.W. pulled ahead in lap 2 to get second. Mitch backed off, content with third. Troxell again cruised.

Final Heat

After assigning lanes in all heats so far, Garbrecht surprised the teams when he said they would fight for lanes in the final. "I didn't really have any other choice. I'm trying to put on the best show for the fans. If we assign lanes with high points inside, Hanson would get lane 1, and he would run away from everyone. If we assign with low points inside, Villwock is in lane 2, inside of Mitch and Hanson, and he runs away with the race. If we assign any other way, it is too contrived. So what is left? I had to let them fight. Fighting for lanes puts all the burden on the drivers. That's good, but we get the 'parking-lot starts,' which isn't good."

Evans also predicted a parking lot. "It will be a slow start. We will form up early. I'll try for lane 3 or 4; lanes 1 and 2 get rough. Hanson is the one I need to have outside of me. I think I can handle Villwock even if he is inside." The inside is where Villwock wanted to be. "I have to get the inside and get some help like in Seattle, when everyone was early and had to come back around the course."

The parking-lot prediction came true. The boats took lanes early in turn 1 with Troxell getting lane 1 very early. Villwock was in 2, Hanson in 3, Evans in 4, and Weber in 5. Myers was just entering the turn. Midway through the turn, Troxell sped up, and the next four followed him. They came very slowly up the backstretch. Myers was behind the field, in the spray, moving across lanes and looking for an open lane. VONS looked like a trailer. The five front-line boats passed the form-up buoy before the one-minute gun, which caused the announcement of a one-lap penalty for all of them. After Myers passed the buoy, he finally found his opening in lane 4 and joined the others; Evans and Weber moved out to lanes 5 and 6.

As the boats moved through the turn heading for the start, Myers knew he could be the winner. "I was going slow behind them at the start of the backstretch, and I knew they were 'way too early. They were moving around, and I finally took lane 4. I knew they were penalized. I was trying to decide whether to race with them or just hang back and take it easy for five laps. I decided I wanted to win racing, not back into a win."

Unfortunately, J.W.'s time in the spray behind the others made his decision moot. "I gave it the gas to start, and the motor went pop, pop, pop, boom!" He coasted to a stop just beyond the exit buoy.

The accumulated spray also took away the boat that Evans thought was his main competitor. As Hanson crossed the start line, he told his crew that there was trouble. "I took too much salt on the backstretch. By the time I got to turn 1, I didn't have any power." With Evans on his outside, Hanson was in the starting position he wanted. But with no power, he slowly completed his laps to finish fifth.

Troxell led the field to the first turn and led Villwock up the backstretch with Evans close on the outside. In turn 2, Evans passed Vill wock to trail Troxell by one-half a roostertail at the end of the lap. In lap 2, Evans caught Troxell and passed him in the backstretch. He led by one roostertail by lap's end.

In lap 3, Villwock caught up to Troxell in turn 1 and passed him in turn 2 to move to second. Villwock made a late charge in the last two laps, but Evans won by two roostertails. Troxell was almost a straightaway back for third, and Weber was one-half a lap back for fourth. The boats ran five laps; officials "canceled" the one-lap penalties when Myers did not start.

Except for the penalty, the slow start was exactly what Troxell wanted. "Before the heat, I told Dave [Villwock] that I couldn't go as fast as him, but I could go slower than him." His third-place finish was the best yet for the new Trendwest.

Evans predicted the start. "I knew things would be slow. I wanted to hold back and move out, because I thought I had the boat speed. But fighting for lanes is the best; it means you get the win honestly." His win also capped a fantastic year for him and the Cooper family and crew. "This year has been like an incredible script. By winning here, we helped my brother and LLumar. Now our goal is to get national sponsorship. I think we've shown that we deserve it."

This race sponsorship was Washington Mutual Bank's first. WaMu had a significant presence with a VIP tent, a display with product and service information, and lots of signs. While there weren't many unlimiteds, they did put on a good show. Evans's victory was very popular with the crowd on the beach, which seemed larger than usual. The motor-home areas were filled to capacity and more. Thank you, WaMu for your support; we hope this year is the first of many as a race sponsor.

(Unlimited NewsJournal, October 2003)